Thursday, May 17, 2001

Tom Carbery

As a young fellow growing up in Athy I well remember the tall lean figure of Tom Carbery. He was a carpenter who like his father Joe worked for a long time with D. & J. Carbery, Building Contractors of St. John’s, Athy. Tom was also a member of Athy Urban District Council and of Kildare County Council. To us young fellows he was one of the Patricians of the town, someone who was known to all and sundry.

Tom’s parents were Joseph and Bridget Carbery who had five children, the last of whom, Danny died in New York two years ago aged 93 years. Danny was one of the many young Athy men who emigrated to America in the years immediately following the setting up of the Irish Free State. He was followed to America by another brother, Bill, who later returned to Ireland during the American Depression, only to lose his life while working on the Poulaphoca hydro-electric Scheme. Kathleen and Delia were Tom’s only sisters, Delia dying unmarried before she had reached her 30th birthday. Kathleen who married Bill Joy lived in No. 1 The Bleach and passed away in 1956 leaving a young family of four.

Tom Carbery served his apprenticeship as a carpenter with D. & J. Carbery, the premier building contractors in this area who built almost all of the Local Authority Housing Schemes in Athy between 1913 and the early 1960’s. On qualifying as a carpenter Tom continued to work for many years for the Carbery firm. A young Limerick girl, Nora Donnelly, came to in Athy in the early 1920’s to work in the Leinster Arms Hotel which was then owned by a consortium of local business men and operated by the Darcy sisters, Eileen, Josie and Florence. Tom and Nora married in 1927 and their only son Joseph was their first born, followed by their only daughter Delia. Tom and his young bride lived for some time with his parents in No. 1 The Bleach before moving to No. 2 St. Martin’s Terrace.

A Labour Party activist for most of his life, Tom was first elected to Athy Urban District Council in 1928. Bill Norton, the small almost barrel-shaped former leader of the Federated Workers Union was appointed leader of the Labour Party in 1932, a position he was to hold for the following 28 years. The Labour Leaders man in Athy for many years was Tom Carbery who threw himself with enthusiasm and energy into the task of organising the Labour Party in South Kildare.

Controversy was never far away when Tom spoke at meetings of the local Council, although it must be said he always made his contributions with the dignity and thoughtfulness expected of a public representative. Nevertheless he was fearless in furthering the causes which he expoused and as one would expect of somebody whose predecessors had been evicted during the Luggacurran Plan of Campaign he was a champion of the underprivileged. One famous campaign highlighted by Tom centred on the rather parsimonious diet made available to the needy poor of the County Home. As a frequent visitor to that institution he became only too aware of the penny pinching ways of the County Council which was responsible for medical services in the County of Kildare. Each inmate was provided with a daily supply of butter which Tom felt was less than adequate and promptly brought the matter to the attention of Kildare County Council creating something of a stink amongst that august body. Tom vigorously attacked the Local Authority for its meanness and drove home his message by holding up the small portion of butter allocated every day to each County Home inmate. Betwixt the transfer of the perishable item from the bedside of Tom’s informant in the County Home and the Chamber of the County Council, the butter had succumbed to the ravages of time and assailed the assembled nostrils with a pungency which added strength to Tom’s argument. The point was quickly taken and Tom was able to report success in another clash with the Council bureaucrats.

Another of Tom’s campaigns still recalled by the older generation of Athy folk was his demand to have clergy attend the removal of the remains of the inmates from the County Home to the nearby St. Mary’s cemetery. Traditionally they were buried with the benefit of previously blessed clay scattered on their coffined remains by a fellow inmate. Tom railed against this practice which was an extension of the common enough practice in Irish towns of that time whereby those too poor to pay for the attendance of clergy were brought straight from the death bed to the graveyard, accompanied only by the local sacristan. But for the County Home inmates not even the attendance of the local Church sacristan was deemed necessary, as their lifeless bodies were lowered into the same ground which many years before had received the famine dead of Athy’s workhouse. Tom Carbery raised the issue at a meeting of Athy Urban District Council and had the satisfaction of eventually overseeing a welcome change in the practice which had its roots in a time when dignity and respect took a back seat to snobbery and slavish attitudes.

Tom and his wife Delia were to suffer, as did so many Athy families during the terrible TB epidemic of the 1940’s. Their only son Joseph who had attended the local Christian Brothers School, worked as a timekeeper for D. & J. Carbery’s firm during the building of the Pairc Bhride housing scheme. He was just 20 years of age when he contacted TB and spent some time in Peamount Hospital before returning home to die in or about 1950. Joseph’s death was a terrible blow to his parents and the only surviving member of the Carbery family, his sister Delia, says that neither her mother or father ever got over the loss of their only son. Tom who died in 1974, predeceased his wife Delia by just two years. As befits a man who was a strong and persistent voice for the underprivileged, Tom is today remembered in the local housing estate Carbery Park which was named in his honour.

His daughter Delia who emigrated to America in 1959 returned recently to Athy for a short visit with her Roscrea born husband John Kenny. In meeting with and talking to Delia I regretted not having done so when Tom’s brother’s Danny was still alive and living in New York. Danny who was almost 74 years out of Athy never forgot his home town and took a great interest in its daily happenings as reported in the Kildare Nationalist. He was a frequent visitor to Athy and whenever he could helped his own townspeople when they were in or passing through New York. I know for instance that my schoolboy friend Leopold Kelly after his ordination and not long before his young life ended stayed with Danny in New York and with his encouragement played football in Gaelic Park. Maybe another day I can tell the story of Danny Carbery and the other ex-pats whose early days were spent in Athy but whose adult lives were lived out amongst the teeming streets of New York.

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